The City Hall scandal that has consumed L.A. since Sunday as the rest of the nation watches on began with a series of audio clips that an anonymous user posted on Sept. 19 on Reddit, the sprawling social news and discussion site known for its freewheeling and often anonymous exchange of views.
The more than hour-long audiotape purported to record a conversation between four of the city’s most powerful Latino leaders—Council President Nury Martinez, Council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León, and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. It was recorded a year ago at the Los Angeles Fed’s building in MacArthur Park—where elected officials and candidates are known to seek an audience with the kingmaker of a union group in L.A.
“My goal in life is to get the three of you elected,” Herrera, who resigned Monday, the day after the tapes were reported, tells the triumvirate of Latino city officials at one point, “…we’re like a little Latino caucus of our own.”
It’s widely believed that the four heard in the leaked audio were the only persons present in the sensitive meeting that morning and that their hour-long exchange was recorded surreptitiously. The first details of the audio emerged in bombshell Sunday reports by the L.A. Times and Knock L.A. on Oct. 9—an October surprise for the ages, coming as it did a month before voting in the midterms and a flurry of hotly contested citywide elections.
Cynical political insiders insist that the timing of the release and the media-savvy means of distribution are not accidental.
“This isn’t some woke kid at the Union who stumbled on a random recording of the city’s top leaders,” a longtime L.A. political advisor tells LAMag. “We are a month from the elections and this will have a huge impact on all that. Nothing about this seems accidental.”
There has been speculation that suspended Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose been stripped of his pay and benefits while he fights federal charges of public corruption, may have come across the explosive audio through the discovery process in his pending case, and leaked it, possibly to discredit a witness for the prosecution, like Martinez. Or simply for some payback.
But in the days after the scandal blew up the city’s government, many L.A. political insiders have been whispering that the most likely to have set off the fuse was Hugo Soto-Martinez.
Soto-Martinez, 39, is a longtime activist and labor union organizer from South L.A. currently running for the City Council seat that represents Hollywood, which is currently occupied by Mitch O’Farrell. As a veteran leader of the powerful L.A. hotel workers union, Unite-HERE, Local 11, and an active participant in the L.A. County Federation of Labor, Soto-Martinez sat on the Fed’s board tasked with vetting candidates for union endorsements and grew friendly with Herrera when the latter was sworn in as president in October 2019.
“To unravel a mystery of how a secret recording gets out,” said a lawyer who has worked on public corruption cases, “start by asking who stands to benefit the most from its release.”
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“No relation” to Nury Martinez, LOL?
In the post that originally appeared on Reddit, the author mentions now-former City Council President Nury Martinez, noting there is “no relation, lol.”
“Wow, you know it happens, but when you actually hear it, it’s unbelievable,” the statement reads. “The labor movement is in bed with City Hall. All you have to do is look close and listen to the recording I just received of LA Fed President Ron Herrera and Nury Martinez (no relation, lol).”
This seems to suggest that the leaker is also named Martinez. And there are not a ton of people named Martinez at City Hall who have the means, motive, and opportunity to pull this off. Ultimately, political sleuths have set their sights on Soto-Martinez, the front-runner in the race to represent the district that includes Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and Hollywood.
For one thing, the former hotel-union organizer presumably still has connections inside the L.A. County Federation of Labor, where the hate-filled conversation took place. His close ally and political mentor, state senator Maria Elena Durazo, former boss of Unite HERE Local 11, for one, remains a force to be reckoned with inside the L.A. Fed.
For another, according to the County Fed’s web page, the labor powerhouse headed by Herrera before the scandal declined to make an endorsement in the District 13 Council race. Early speculation was that taking down Herrera was payback for the snub from erstwhile labor stalwart Soto-Martinez. And taking down Nury Martinez would harm incumbent City Councilman O’Farrell, who until the scandal broke this week was a close ally of the now former council president who resigned her seat on the council Wednesday.
The snub from Herrera, with whom Soto-Martinez was cordial, might explain the note of feelings of betrayal detectable in the introduction written on Reddit that precedes the leaked audio.
Sources close to those involved suspect that Soto-Martinez may have received the secret recordings from people affiliated with Unite HERE Local 11, the hotel workers union for which he has worked for years as an organizer, and which is active in the County Labor Federation. Another source stated: “All I know is that in the original posting it said ‘Nury Martinez’ and in parentheses, it said ‘no relation.’”
Soto-Martinez is also a leader of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose membership overlaps to a degree with the staff of labor union affiliates to the County Fed. The DSA-LA endorsed Soto-Martinez for office, as did Knock LA, the independent media outlet that broke the story of the explosive audio.
What’s also intriguing here is that it was a top advisor to Soto-Martinez, Josh Androsky, who helped guide Council member Nithya Raman to victory in the 2020 election to represent District 4. Large swathes of residents from Raman’s fourth district were impacted by the efforts that were being discussed in the leaked backroom conversation, which revealed a concerted effort on behalf of the Latino leaders to redraw district boundaries to diminish Raman’s chances at re-election.
One City Hall insider told LAMag that Raman was in possession of the tapes before they appeared in the media, saying, “Nithya Raman has had those tapes since [Thursday], which means that she sat on those recordings for a day or two.”
On the Saturday morning that reporters from the L.A. Times began reviewing the contents of the recordings, the DSA-LA co-sponsored a rally and canvassing event, “All Out 4 Hugo” in North Atwater Park on Saturday morning—featuring Raman and Soto-Martinez as featured speakers.
Before this, the anonymous Reddit post had languished, virtually unnoticed on the social news website for nearly three weeks—until a self-appointed labor-union watchdog account on Twitter called LA Union Laundry posted the Reddit link, tagging Times reporter David Zahniser and other prominent City Hall watchers—including Soto-Martinez. (Through a spokeswoman, Raman says she learned of the existence of the audio from the same tweet.)
If the leaker was Soto-Martinez, the timing of it—about a year after the recordings were made but just before mail-in ballots are set to arrive for the general election—would seem to boost his chances of being swept into office.
In the leaked audio, L.A. Fed boss Herrera reveals differences that have arisen between him and Soto-Martinez over the latter’s perceived ingratitude toward the labor federation as his candidacy gained momentum and took more of an activist turn.
“Don’t come to me and say ‘I love you but I’m embarrassed to say I’m union. ‘No, f— you then.’ I socialize with the guy,” Herrera tells an unidentified woman. “But don’t be a f—.”
“He should have nothing but support from me personally and the Federation,” Herrera can be heard telling the woman. “He’s it. But he forgot his roots.”
Herrera, a former teamster secretary-treasurer, added that Soto-Martinez needs to pay his dues before taking over such a powerful post as a seat on the City Council. “Go work for Mitch, learn the district, learn the job, and the chair is in four years.”
Two weeks after the leak, the City Hall recordings from the meeting at the L.A. Federation of Labor, audio in which Herrera casually mocks State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, likening the close ally of Soto-Martinez, to Madonna is posted by the mysterious Reddit account.
According to the original Reddit poster, whose username is Honest Finding 1581, someone gave them the recordings; given his ties to the County Fed, one strong candidate for the Reddit poster would have to be Hugo Soto-Martinez—and the “no relation” to Nury Martinez comment may just be a giveaway.
Soto-Martinez told LAMag that the tweet with the recordings was sent to him on October 6, four days before the story broke; he claims this was the first he had heard of them, calling the growing speculation that he posted them on Reddit “absolutely ridiculous and untrue.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed to Nury Martinez quotes that appear to have been made by an unidentified woman. We regret the error.